The recent release of “The Hunger Games” movie has brought in $155 million during its box-office opening, making it the third highest opening-weekend earner ever (and grossing domestically $302 million to date). So what is it about this movie that has got people queuing up en masse to see it? Well, it’s got something that quite a few other successful and not-so-successful movies have: A story line that has people hooked. It’s one that centers around a dystopian future, where people are forced to set upon each other in violent and fatal battles for entertainment value. There was a time, of course, when this type of thing was actually part of a nation’s culture: some 2000 years ago in the era of the Roman Gladiators and the infamous battles to the death in the amphitheaters spread across the Empire.
Not exactly an original idea
Futuristic battles to the death, set in a post-apocalyptic or de-sensitized world, where a dystopian society regards brutal and murderous violence on television as normal entertainment, have often made for pretty good movies, so it’s no surprise that “The Hunger Games” has done so well. Let’s take a look at some of the other movies that fit the same bill.
Going all the way back to 1975, “Death Race 2000” has become a cult film, and there has even been a remake of the original, which was released in 2008. One of the first films of this genre, in the world of “Death Race 2000” the U.S. has become a fascist police state, the result of a military coup and a financial crisis. The Annual Transcontinental Road Race is the state-controlled entertainment for the public, a race where killing your opponents and any pedestrians that get in the way is rewarded with more points. The same year another film of a similar vein was released, “Rollerball.” In the universe of Rollerball, the world is governed by a corporate state, which controls absolutely everything, from energy and food, to transport. The governing corporation have put in place a violent sport called Rollerball, which replaces all other sports. The matches are televised, with death and injury common sights for the viewers.
One of the most popular movies that involved a televised death match is the 1987 movie “The Running Man.” Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards, it is set in an American totalitarian state where convicts are given a supposed chance at freedom in a fixed televised game show. Ben is wrongly convicted and forced to fight for his life in a murderous gladiator style game show.
Battle Royale: a little too similar?
In 2000, the Japanese movie “Battle Royale” was released. Also based on a novel, this movie has one big theme similar to “The Hunger Games” in that children — not adults — are forced to compete in the deadly games. In the world of Battle Royale, children are kidnapped and forced to fight to the death against each other. The groups are given various types of weapons and fitted with a collar that will explode it they don’t comply with the rules. There has been some criticism towards the author of “The Hunger Games,” Suzanne Collins, over the similarity, although she claims to have never of heard of Battle Royale before she wrote her book.
Audiences just want more, and they will have it
In the last few years, there have been a number of movies that fit into the same mold as “The Hunger Games.” 2007 saw the release of “The Condemned,” a movie where prisoners from around the world are purchased and forced to fight each other to the death in order to win back their freedom. The 2009 movie “Gamer” offers a different take on the death match idea. Instead on being of a television show, the death match takes place within an interactive game controlled by the public, and all the people in the deadly game are real people under somebody else’s control.
It seems there is no let-up in the amount of movies that use this ancient desire for blood, just like back in the days of the Roman Empire. In fact, the author of “The Hunger Games” has already written two more books that follow on from her first. The follow-on novel to “The Hunger Games,” called “Catching Fire,” is already being made into a movie, and is due to be released in November next year.
Fight for 35mm
Are the days of 35mm film numbered? Recent moves by the major Hollywood (and foreign) studios don’t augur well for the format. While it takes thousands of dollars to duplicate a 35mm print and disseminate several thousand copies to movie theaters around the U.S., a digital copy of that 35mm print can be made for about $200 and then shipped on a hard drive (or, soon, by satellite or cable) to theaters, saving the studios millions of dollars every year. That’s great for the studios’ bottom lines, and they’re pretty much forcing America’s theater-owners to convert to digital projectors by threatening the elimination of film and by offering monetary incentives to defray the cost of conversion. The problem is that digital “prints” are great for DVD and home entertainment, but should never be used for big-screen, theatrical presentations. There is a warmth, fluidity and depth to 35mm film that digital can never replicate. (See Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” which details the physical and psychological differences between watching a continuous image on film and an image broken up into dots and bits on digital). Worse, the change to digital will lock-out the few remaining small theater-owners and art-houses, who won’t be able to get 35mm prints of classic films — and, even if they wanted to, they couldn’t afford the digital changeover. What to do? Check out the following sites (Fight for 35mm, Row Three, Movieline) that discuss the issue, then sign the “Fight for 35mm” Petition. Please. Now.
Home video has – in a similar manner to cinema in general – had an incredibly rich and varied past – this we all know. The quality of the picture, the actors, the themes, the sounds: it all changes over time. Even the formats with which we view any home media have changed, with different home video vessels coming and going over the years. We might well be on DVD and Blu-ray these days, but we haven’t always had it so easy and in such high definition.
Like home video entertainment itself, home video storage/playback technology has come in leaps and bounds since the early days (whenever one might class those as, but that is a whole other kettle of fish). So sit back in your reclining rocker or favorite comfortable chair and let us take a brief look at just what has brought us to the current home video technology that we use today.
It would be rather untoward to start with anything else, especially considering how the very term “home video” was coined from the extensive use of VHS tapes to drive the medium forward.
VHS (or Video Home System) was a major player in the television industry from way back in the 1970s right up until the late 90s/start of 2000, when DVD replaced VHS as the home video format of choice. VHS was developed by JVC (Victor Company of Japan) and was immediately at the forefront of the videotape format wars of the time, being JVC’s answer to Sony’s Betamax videocassette tape (more on which later). Eventually, VHS would win the “war” and emerge triumphant as the staple videocassette and indeed become somewhat of an icon for home video usage the world over.
The second major player in the videotape format wars of 70s and 80s, the Betamax type of videocassette was developed by Sony and was formally released to consumers in 1975. Similar in design to JVC’s VHS cassettetapes, the Betamax was sadly destined for failure and would eventually lose the format wars and become obsolete (although still used by purists or certain specialized occasions).
Taking its name from a portmanteau of the Japanese word for the way the signals were recorded and the Greek letter it resembled upon the tape being run (beta), combined with the –max suffix to suggest greatness (a sad piece of irony there), Betamax was fighting a losing battle a mere two years after its release, having about half the recording time of the VHS tapes being released in competition. Although for argument’s sake, it must be said that Betamax was a slightly smaller format than VHS, so there were some advantages.
Essentially it came down to the fact that Betamax couldn’t keep up with the advancements that VHS was experiencing, namely being in the recording side of things. Betamax-based video recorders wound up being record-only, playback would – for technological reasons – only be available on full-size home VCRs, a bothersome chore that consumers would not put up with for long, especially in light of VHS-based recorders supporting full playback and copying capabilities. Poor Betamax.
With its 30-60 minute-per-side capabilities, the laserdisc was a far cry from the massive storage capabilities of DVD and Blu-ray that we enjoy today. Developed in part by Philips, MCA, and Pioneer, the laserdisc saw a brief existence in the late 70s and early 80s, with very minimal usage seeing it last until around 2000.
The format itself was – rather interestingly – fully capable of offering a higher quality of home video/audio than its counterparts of the era, yet was received rather negatively in most home video-viewing countries. America and Europe wanted nothing to do with the laserdisc, yet Japan and parts of South East Asia seemed to get along with the laserdisc fairly well. Near the end of the laserdisc’s career as a viable format, 2% of US households had a laserdisc player, which is significantly less than the 10% of Japanese household stocking the format.
Laserdiscs were subsequently completely replaced by the more widely-accepted DVD format in the early 2000s. However, it would not be entirely true to say that the format was now obsolete, as laserdiscs still have a prominent place in the hearts of collectors (particularly in Japan, where the format was relatively better received) and even sees relative amounts of use in certain circles.
Beginners (2011) by Mike Mills: Graphic designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor) must deal with the death of his father (Christopher Plummer) — who came out of the closet after the death of his wife — a new relationship with a French actress, and his dad’s Jack Russell terrier, who comments on the proceedings with Oliver via subtitles. A joyous affirmation of love and life.
Bellflower (2011) by Evan Glodell: Quirky first film about two slackers who spend their time building flamethrowers and a wild car that shoots flames in preparation for coming global apocalypse; their life is complicated when they both fall for the same woman.
Blue Valentine (2010) by Derek Cianfrance: Saga of the deteriorating marriage of a young couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams), originally madly in love but split apart by different life goals. Told by cross-cutting the present and flashbacks.
The Concert (2010) by Radu Mihaileanu: A renowned conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra, fired 30 years earlier for hiring Jewish musicians and now the orchestra’s janitor, surreptitiously gathers together his former musicians to perform The Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in Paris in place of the current orchestra. Stars Mélanie Laurent.
Enter the Void (2010) by Gaspar Noe: Phantasmogoric story about a drug dealer and his sister living in the red light district of a near-future Tokyo; when the young man dies, his soul floats through the city, watching over her and observing the dramas of his friends and foes. Surreally sexually explicit.
Fire of Conscience (2010 — Hong Kong) by Dante Lam: A Hong Kong cop gets caught up in corruption at the highest levels of the police force.
Let Me In (2010) by Matt Reeves: U.S. redo of the Swedish horror-thriller “Let the Right One In,” about a bullied young boy who befriends a 12-year-old female vampire (who hasn’t aged in centuries) (Chloë Grace Moretz) who lives in secrecy next door with her guardian, a serial killer who drains the blood of his victims to supply her thirst.
The Man from Nowhere (2010 — South Korea) by Jeong-beom Lee: A quiet pawnshop keeper with a violent past as a special agent becomes a one-man army to take on a drug- and organ-trafficking ring to save the little girl who is his only friend.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2010) by Jean-François Richet: The story of Jacques Mesrine (a brilliant performance by Vincent Cassel), France’s public enemy No. 1 during the 1970s, who became an infamous legend during two decades of flamboyant bank robberies, kidnappings and prison breaks until gunned down by police in Paris
Midnight in Paris (2011) by Woody Allen: Allen’s best film in years, about a writer (Owen Wilson) in Paris with his fiance and her parents, who, every night at midnight, mysteriously travels back to the Paris of the 1920s to meet the era’s literary and artistic luminaries, giving him a new take on his life.
Our Idiot Brother (2011) by Jesse Peretz: A blissful idealist and vegetable farmer (Paul Rudd) loses his farm and his girlfriend and goes off to live — in succession — with each of his three sisters, bringing havoc (and enlightenment) to their lives. Stars Elizabeth Banks, Rashida Jones, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer and Kathryn Hahn
Point Blank (2011 — France) by Fred Cavaye: After a male nurse saves a gangster’s life, his pregnant wife is kidnapped by opposing gangsters and he has to — literally — run through the streets and subways of Paris, while evading the cops, to save her.
Rango (2011)by Gore Verbinski: Animated “Western” about an ordinary chameleon who accidentally winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless outpost in the modern Wild West in desperate need of a new sheriff. Wild and funny homage to movie Westerns.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010 — Iceland) by Jalmari Helander: Laplanders unearth the original Santa Claus — a monster who eats children — and his elderly, ugly, naked helpers in this bizarre take on Christmas giving.
Stake Land (2010) by Jim Mickle: A young boy and a rogue vampire hunter team up to travel across the wasteland of an America devastated by a vampire epidemic; their goal: to find a “New Eden” in Canada. Not as violent — and more literary — than most such examples of this genre.
The Stool Pigeon (2010 — Hong Kong): by Dante Lam: A disillusioned cop begins working with an informant in this ultraviolent Hong Kong crime actioner.
13 Assassins (2010 — Japan) by Takashi Miike: Thirteen samurais are assembled to fight off a warlord and his 200-man army. A long, spectacular final battle rivals any fight sequence ever put on the screen.
TrollHunter (2010 — Norway) by André Øvredal: A group of students investigating bear killings meet a troll hunter and uncover a government conspiracy to prevent their existence from leaking out.
True Grit (2010) by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen: Not so much a remake as a redo — closer to the original story — about a tough U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges, wonderful, as the drunken Rooster Cogburn) hired by a stubborn young woman to track down her father’s murderer.
True Legend (2010 — China) by Woo-ping Yuen: The peaceful life of a retired general is destroyed when his evil adopted brother destroys his family, forcing back to action as the legendary Drunken master; set during the Qing dynasty. The opening sequencer — in which General Su Qi-Er and his army invades a fortress hidden inside a mountain is breathtaking for its martial arts choreography.
And don’t forget the following Criterion releases:
Black Moon (1975) Louis Malle meets Lewis Carroll in this bizarre and bewitching trip down the rabbit hole. After skirting the horrors of an unidentified war being waged in an anonymous countryside, a beautiful young woman (Cathryn Harrison) takes refuge in a remote farmhouse, where she becomes embroiled in the surreal domestic Odyssey of a mysterious family. Evocatively shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, “Black Moon” is a Freudian tale of adolescent sexuality set in a postapocalyptic world of shifting identities and talking animals. It is one of Malle’s most experimental films and a cinematic daydream like no other. New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Branded to Kill (1967) When Japanese New Wave bad boy Seijun Suzuki delivered this brutal, hilarious, and visually inspired masterpiece to the executives at his studio, he was promptly fired. “Branded to Kill” tells the ecstatically bent story of a yakuza assassin (Joe Shishido, the chipmunk-cheeked superstar from “Gate of Flesh”) with a fetish for sniffing boiled rice who botches a job and ends up a target himself. This is Suzuki at his most extremethe flabbergasting pinnacle of his sixties pop-art aesthetic. New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
The Complete Jean Vigo Even among cinema’s greatest legends, Jean Vigo stands alone. The son of a notorious anarchist, Vigo had a brief but brilliant career making poetic, lightly surrealist films before his life was cut tragically short by tuberculosis at age 29. Like the daring early works of his contemporaries Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel, Vigo’s films refused to play by the rules. This set includes all of Vigo’s titles:
Cul-de-sac (1966) Roman Polanski orchestrates a mental menage a trois in this slyly absurd tale of paranoia from the director’s golden 1960s period. Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac star as a withdrawn couple whose isolated house is infiltrated by a rude, burly American gangster on the run, played by Lionel Stander. The three engage in a game of shifting identities and sexual and emotional humiliations. “Cul-de-sac” is an evocative, claustrophobic, and morbidly funny tale of the modern world in chaos. New digital restoration, approved by director Roman Polanski, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Design for Living (1933) Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins play a trio of Americans in Paris who enter into a very adult “gentleman’s” agreement in this continental pre-Code comedy freely adapted by Ben Hecht from a play by Noel Coward and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A risque relationship comedy and a witty take on creative pursuits, it concerns a commercial artist (Hopkins) unable — or unwilling — to choose between the equally dashing painter (Cooper) and playwright (March) she meets on a train en route to the City of Light. “Design for Living” is Lubitsch at his most adroit, an entertainment at once debonair and racy, featuring three stars at the height of their allure. New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Diabolique (1954) Before “Psycho,” “Peeping Tom” and “Repulsion,” there was “Diabolique.” This thriller from Henri-Georges Clouzot (“Le corbeau,” “The Wages of Fear”), which shocked audiences in Europe and the U.S., is the story of two women — the fragile wife and the willful mistress of a sadistic school headmaster — who hatch a daring revenge plot. With its unprecedented narrative twists and unforgettably scary images, “Diabolique” is a heart-grabbing benchmark in horror filmmaking, featuring outstanding performances by Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse. New digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
The Great Dictator (1940) In his notorious masterpiece “The Great Dictator,” Charlie Chaplin offers both a cutting caricature of Adolf Hitler and a sly tweaking of his own comic persona. Chaplin (in his first pure talkie) brings his sublime physicality to two roles: the cruel yet clownish “Tomanian” dictator and the kindly Jewish barber who is mistaken for him. Featuring Jack Oakie and Paulette Goddard in stellar supporting turns, “The Great Dictator,” boldly going after the fascist leader before the U.S.’s official entry into World War II, is an audacious amalgam of politics and slapstick that culminates in Chaplin’s famously impassioned plea for tolerance. New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) In this atomic adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel, directed by Robert Aldrich, the good manners of the 1950s are blown to smithereens. Ralph Meeker stars as snarling private dick Mike Hammer, whose decision one dark, lonely night to pick up a hitchhiking woman sends him down some terrifying byways. Brazen and bleak, “Kiss Me Deadly” is a film noir masterpiece as well as an essential piece of cold war paranoia, and it features as nervy an ending as has ever been seen in American cinema. New high-definition restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
The Naked Kiss (1964) The setup is pure pulp: A former prostitute (a crackerjack Constance Towers) relocates to a buttoned-down suburb, determined to fit in with mainstream society. But in the strange, hallucinatory territory of writer-director-producer Samuel Fuller, perverse secrets inevitably simmer beneath a seemingly wholesome surface. Featuring radical visual touches, full-throttle performances, brilliant cinematography by Stanley Cortez (“The Night of the Hunter”), and one bizarrely beautiful musical number, “The Naked Kiss” is among Fuller’s greatest, boldest entertainments. New, restored high-definition digital transfer.
Orpheus (1950) This 1950 update of the Orphic myth by Jean Cocteau depicts a famous poet (Jean Marais) scorned by the Left Bank youth, and his love for both his wife Eurydice (Marie Dea) and a mysterious princess (Maria Casares). Seeking inspiration, the poet follows the princess from the world of the living to the land of the dead through Cocteau’s famous mirrored portal. “Orpheus” represents the legendary Cocteau at the height of his abilities for peerless visual poetry and dreamlike storytelling. New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Pale Flower (1964) In this cool, seductive jewel of the Japanese New Wave, a yakuza, fresh out of prison, becomes entangled with a beautiful yet enigmatic gambling addict; what at first seems a redemptive relationship ends up leading him further down the criminal path. Bewitchingly shot and edited and laced with a fever-dream-like score by Toru Takemitsu (“Woman in the Dunes,” “Ran”), this breakthrough gangster romance from Masahiro Shinoda (“Samurai Spy,” “Double Suicide”) announced an idiosyncratic major filmmaking talent. The pitch-black “Pale Flower (Kawaita hana)” is an unforgettable excursion into the underworld. New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
People on Sunday (1930) “People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)” represents an astonishing confluence of talent — an early collaboration by a group of German filmmakers who would all go on to become major Hollywood players, including eventual noir masters Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer and future Oscar winners Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman. This effervescent, sunlit silent film, about a handful of city dwellers enjoying a weekend outing (a charming cast of nonprofessionals), offers a rare glimpse of Weimar-era Berlin. A unique hybrid of documentary and fictional storytelling, “People on Sunday” was both an experiment and a mainstream hit that would influence generations of film artists around the world. New high-definition digital restoration, created in collaboration with the Filmmuseum Amsterdam.
The Rules of the Game (1939) Considered one of the greatest films ever made, “The Rules of the Game” (La regle du jeu), by Jean Renoir, is a scathing critique of corrupt French society cloaked in a comedy of manners, in which a weekend at a marquis’s countryside chateau lays bare some ugly truths about a group of haute bourgeois acquaintances. The film was a victim of tumultuous history — it was subjected to cuts after premiere audiences rejected it in 1939, and the original negative was destroyed during World War II; it wasn’t reconstructed until 1959. That version, which has stunned viewers for decades, is presented here. High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Shock Corridor (1963) In “Shock Corridor,” the great American writer-director-producer Samuel Fuller masterfully charts the uneasy terrain between sanity and dementia. Seeking a Pulitzer Prize, reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has himself committed to a mental hospital to investigate a murder. As he closes in on the killer, madness closes in on him. Constance Towers co-stars as Johnny’s cool-headed stripper girlfriend. With its startling commentary on race in 60s America and daring photography by Stanley Cortez (“The Night of the Hunter”), “Shock Corridor” is now recognized for its far-reaching influence. New, restored high-definition digital transfer.
Solaris (1972) Ground control has been receiving strange transmissions from the remaining residents of the Solaris space station. When cosmonaut and psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to investigate, he experiences the strange phenomena that afflict the Solaris crew, sending him on a voyage into the darkest recesses of his own consciousness. In “Solaris,” the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky gives us a brilliantly original science-fiction epic that challenges our conceptions about love, truth, and humanity itself. High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Something Wild (1986) A straitlaced businessman meets a quirky, free-spirited woman at a downtown New York greasy spoon. Her offer of a ride back to his office results in a lunchtime motel rendezvous — just the beginning of a capricious interstate road trip that brings the two face-to-face with their hidden selves. Featuring a killer soundtrack and electric performances from Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta, “Something Wild,” directed by oddball American auteur Jonathan Demme (“Stop Making Sense,” “The Silence of the Lambs”), is both a kinky comic thriller and a radiantly off-kilter love story. New, restored digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Tak Fujimoto and approved by director Jonathan Demme, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) In the swift, cynical “Sweet Smell of Success,” directed by Alexander Mackendrick (“The Ladykillers”), Burt Lancaster stars as barbaric Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the unprincipled press agent he ropes into smearing the up-and-coming jazz musician romancing his beloved sister. Featuring deliciously unsavory dialogue in an acid, brilliantly structured script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman and noirish neon cityscapes from Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, “Sweet Smell of Success” is a cracklingly cruel dispatch from the kill-or-be-killed wilds of 1950s Manhattan. New, restored high-definition digital transfer.
Three Colors: Blue, White, Red (1993-1994) This boldly cinematic trio of stories about love and loss from Krzysztof Kieslowski (“The Double Life of Veronique”) was a defining event of the art-house boom of the 1990s. The films were named for the colors of the French flag and stand for the tenets of the French Revolution — liberty, equality, and fraternity — but this hardly begins to explain their enigmatic beauty and rich humanity. Set in Paris, Warsaw and Geneva, and ranging from tragedy to comedy, “Blue,” “White” and “Red” (Kieslowski’s final film) examine with artistic clarity a group of ambiguously interconnected people experiencing profound personal disruptions. Marked by intoxicating cinematography and stirring performances by such actors as Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” is a benchmark of contemporary cinema. New high-definition digital restorations, with DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray editions.
Tokyo Drifter (1966) In this jazzy gangster film, reformed killer Phoenix Tetsu’s attempt to go straight is squashed when his former cohorts call him back to Tokyo to help battle a rival gang. This onslaught of stylized violence and trippy colors got director Seijun Suzuki in trouble with Nikkatsu studio heads, who were put off by his anything-goes, in-your-face aesthetic, equal parts Russ Meyer, Samuel Fuller and Nagisa Oshima. “Tokyo Drifter” is a delirious highlight of the brilliantly excessive Japanese cinema of the sixties. New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.